There’s no question that the arrival of a newborn is both a blessing and a challenge to parents. The seemingly endless nights with little or no sleep, constant feeding and diaper changes, and ever-present, ear-splitting crying can be a trial for even the most patient, mature moms and dads. In all the excitement and stress, it’s easy to forget that older children, too, have a lot of adjustments to make when a newborn sibling arrives. After all, there’s now competition for the parental time and attention that was, until recently, focused exclusively on them. It’s normal for children to feel a little resentment under these circumstances, even if, on one level, they’re thrilled about having a new brother or sister.
The good news is, with a little preparation and understanding, parents can help smooth this transition for older children and nip sibling rivalry in the bud. Here’s how:
Set the stage
If all goes as planned, you’ve got nine months of pregnancy to get ready for your baby’s arrival. Be sure to use some of that time to prepare your older child for the changes ahead. It’s a lot easier for kids to adjust to change when they know what to expect. Read some children’s books about pregnancy and new babies together to help them understand what’s happening and how things will be different when the baby comes. Encourage them to discuss any feelings or concerns the books might elicit.
Young kids often have unrealistic expectations about a newborn’s capabilities. Explain to your child that it will be quite some time before their new sibling will be able to play or interact in any meaningful way. Also, make sure they understand that babies are a lot of hard work and demand a lot of time and attention so you might be tired for a while.
Many hospitals offer a special sibling class to help prepare kids for a newborn’s arrival. Take advantage of one if available. These programs may include a tour of a maternity room so kids know where Mom is going when it’s time to have the baby.
This period of preparation is also a good time to teach your child the proper way to touch, hold, and behave around a baby. Encourage them to practice holding a newborn and properly supporting the baby’s head using a doll or stuffed animal.
Don’t sweat behavioral setbacks
Don’t be surprised if a child who seemed excited about the pending birth has second thoughts after the baby actually comes home to stay. For example, once a newborn arrives, it’s not uncommon for older children to display some degree of regressive or disruptive behavior, such as using baby talk, wanting to be fed with a bottle, having toileting accidents, or having temper tantrums. Though this behavior might add to your workload and frustration, don’t worry; it typically resolves within a relatively short time.
However, it’s important to teach your child that, while it’s okay to have negative feelings about the baby, it’s never okay to express them through aggressive behavior toward the baby. Instead, encourage them to draw a picture showing how they feel or act out their emotions using a doll.
Reinforce your child’s importance
Assuring your child that they have always been and always will be precious to you can significantly allay their anxiety over a newborn’s arrival. Take a few minutes together to look back over their infant photos or videos and discuss how exciting it was when they were the baby of the family. Tell them how proud you are that they’re such a good big brother or sister to the baby and such a good helper for you.
Get your child involved
Another great way to help your child develop a positive attitude toward the new family member is to encourage them to take an active (and age-appropriate) role in caring for the baby. For instance, they could hand you supplies at bath time, choose which outfit to put on the baby (out of two or three options pre-approved by you, of course), fetch wet wipes, help push the stroller, carry the diaper bag, retrieve bottles, or anything else that is suited to their capabilities and safe for the baby.
Be mindful of relatives’ gushing
When a baby is born, it’s not uncommon for visiting relatives and friends to gush over the newborn while forgetting about the feelings of the older sibling. If your older child seems to be having a particularly hard time adjusting to your new family member, you might want to discreetly mention this fact to visitors or make a point of praising them in front of others for how helpful and mature they’ve been since the baby came.
Spend one-on-one time together
Most importantly, parents should set aside some time every day to play with and listen to their older child one-on-one so they know they’re loved and still an important member of the family. Babies don’t give parents much of a break, but Mom and Dad can always take turns—with Dad spending time with the older child while Mom tends to the baby and vice versa.